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    a cowboy closing a farmyard gate

    A Day in the Life of a Cowboy Priest

    Father Bryce Lungren cares for cattle, but he also cares for the souls of his Wyoming parish.

    By Nathan Beacom

    July 4, 2022
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    • Joe Kallina

      Hi Nathan, Thank you for the real life article on Fr. Bryce, the cowboy Priest. Father’s vocation took some roundabout detours, but the Holy Spirit still guided him to the priesthood. Years ago, on my 13th birthday, my Uncle & Aunt from S.E Texas sent me a pair of cowboy boots. Since college, when my feet stopped growing, I’d been owning a couple of pairs for fun. BTW, in your article, there were several places where you spelled “mass”, instead of “Mass”: the celebration of the Eucharist. Sometimes, spell checker doesn’t check correctly! Thank you and God bless you! Joe K.

    • joan

      Well.. all glory to God on this one! Some real good men seem to come out of Wyoming. A truly great article - thanks!

    • Maria Rodriguez

      I loved this article … this is how priest should I relate to their constituency … you need my example. 🥰

    • Christine Burns

      What a smashing piece, I really felt as if I was there! Loved the way the priest lives his life. That to me is real Christianity! Inspiring.

    • Gerard Rooney

      What a lovely article. It shows how God can use all sorts of characters to build his Kingdom. We come to God as ourselves and in him we become the best version of ourselves. May God continue to bless his ministry.

    • Michelle Snyder

      I want to thank you for such a great article! I shared it with my children, and another friend, who I thought would like it also. I loved the story of Father Bryce, how it shows how real our priests are, true men, men of God. Father Bryce has words we can all take to heart, and I have. May God be with him, and bless his ministry!

    “Celebrities are famous, but saints are known.”

    Father Bryce Lungren is celebrating Mass in Hulett, Wyoming, in his alb, chasuble, and cowboy boots. “We want to be understood, to be seen, and sometimes we seek that through trying to be famous,” he tells parishioners, but “to be known is to see how we are known by God, and to be known by others for who we truly are.” Shaking hands with parishioners after Mass, he climbs up on the wheel of his cattle trailer, still in his priestly garb, to discuss his cows with an interested parishioner.

    I first heard of Father Bryce, the “cowboy priest,” while I was working on legislation to support independent cattle producers and processors in Nebraska. A minister who also ranches, butchers, and sells his own beef, he was one of the first cattle producers in the country to adopt a system whereby members of the community own a share in a herd and obtain cuts of meat straight from the locker where it was butchered. He is also a bona fide priest in the Catholic Church.

    Father Bryce drives a white truck, and when he picks me up from Gillette, Wyoming’s little airport, he’s pulling a cattle trailer with “Lungren Brothers Cattle Company” painted on the side. He wears a cowboy hat, gold belt buckle, aviators, and boots, with a rosary and pair of pliers hanging from his belt. A big smile and a handshake; “welcome to Wyoming, man!” He’s on the better side of six feet tall, firm hands and build, and balding, but, if he isn’t saying Mass, he’s almost always got his cowboy hat on (“always wear your hat,” his grandpa used to say).

    Father Bryce speaks with a parishioner

    Photographs courtesy of the author

    We hop into the truck and I throw my bag into the back seat, among a pair of chaps, a revolver, and some bags of homemade beef jerky. He lays out the game plan for the weekend: make some ground beef, pick up the horses, move some cattle, ride the mission circuit, and then “hang out and do whatevs.” Father Bryce has a way of talking that is cowboy with a touch of surfer. He’s full of western sayings, but also sprinkled with phrases like “sweet, bro.”

    This is our first bit of windshield time, and I ask some of the basics. Where were you born, were you always in Wyoming? How’d you end up as a priest here? He was born in Wyoming, he says, and, as for the other questions, those are longer answers, but we’ve got all day. Father Bryce was born and bred in Wyoming in a reasonably religious home, but priesthood was not on his radar. He wasn’t too much for school, either, preferring to be outside and working with his hands. This led him to Helena, Montana, after high school, where he worked for his uncle driving a tow truck, repairing trailers. He remembered that first Sunday waking up thinking, “I guess it’s up to me whether I want to go to church or not.” He barely got that thought through his head when his uncle beat on the door and said “let’s go.” From that Sunday on he never stopped going to Mass, even when he was all alone. This proved to be decisive, though the journey forward would not be simple.

    After 9/11, he started to think bigger about what he could do with his life, leading to a conversation with a priest who suggested a vocation to the priesthood. But he wasn’t initially interested; he desired to be married, and so he moved to a cattle ranch in Great Falls, fell in love with the rancher’s daughter, and proposed.

    She said “yes,” but with her not being Catholic, they struggled to get on the same page. This caused Bryce to learn more about his Catholic faith. As he did, he fell in love with the Church, and a desire for the priesthood emerged. “We had some tearful conversations,” he tells me, “but being a true woman of God, in the end she encouraged me to go.” He set off for seminary and left his boots behind. “When Christ calls, you drop the nets,” he said. Cowboying, he reckoned, was behind him for good.

    The transition from ranching to seminary was not easy. He felt like he didn’t fit in. He wasn’t academic in personality, and didn’t have the same background and upbringing as the other men. This led to a lot of anxiety about whether he had chosen the right life path and if the priesthood was a good fit. But in the midst of the anxiety, he found solace in nature and material reality. He built picnic tables with other seminarians, mountain biked around Omaha, and found stability in the solid world around him. “Jesus took on dirt,” he says, “he didn’t come as a cell phone or something. If you want to get to know him, you have to get to know reality. You have to learn to pay attention.”

    After seminary, he served as a deacon on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. It was one of the most challenging periods of his ministry. He loved working with the people there, but it was a time of anxiety about his vocation and his future. In the midst of this, “Chief just sorta blew in, nobody knew where he came from. But he’s part of the reason I ended up where I am.” Chief was a wild horse, and the projects of breaking him grounded Father Bryce. Working with Chief was a taste of the way in which he would reconcile his priestly vocation with his cowboy personality, and of his path back to Wyoming. Wyoming, the ranching life – these, to him, were home. He had a discussion with a superior about his conflicted feeling between serving Montana or Wyoming, and the older priest had given him sage advice, “Bryce, you can’t ride two horses with one ass.”

    photograph of a cowboy at a rodeo

    Hanging by the door of Father Bryce’s meat locker is a pair of old spurs by a funeral card for Father Carl Beavers. “He was a huge mentor to me and helped me to see my path as a priest. He gave me those spurs as a gift.” Father Carl was somebody who was fully himself, fully human, and fully a priest of God and of the Church. Ultimately, Father Bryce had discerned that Wyoming was the place for him. What he hadn’t expected was that coming back to Wyoming would also be an opportunity to integrate his ministry with his cowboy past.

    His meat locker is a built-out refrigerated semi-trailer that some parishioners helped him to put together. Like his white truck, the “Lungren Brothers” logo is painted on the side. The other “brother” of Lungren Brothers refers to everyone who has a share in the herd. “Everybody is part owner of this cattle company, part of the family, so everyone who has a share is one of the Lungren brothers,” he explains. Inside the trailer a list of several dozen original owners is hanging on the wall. In the back of the locker, quarters of beef hang from shackles; crates of frozen steaks occupy the front. A wooden paddle for mashing beef into the grinder hangs on the wall; the phrase “the church needs more cowboys” is burnt into the side.

    He admits that when he started the business, “I didn’t know a thing. I might as well have labeled the packages ‘front of cow’ and ‘back of cow.’” Early on, he sent a friend an unchewable cut from the neck. “He called me and said ‘what the hell did you give me, it’s impossible to eat!’”

    As he works, I take the chance to ask him about his religious outlook and influences. Despite repeated disclaimers about not being academic or much of a scholar, his responses are sharp. He worries about some of the faithful, so tied up in their phones, so outraged by headlines and news stories. “It’s not always your business to pay attention to every controversy or news story. We’re not called to always be in this state of anxiety and to be all worked up. If I’m constantly reading my phone or watching YouTube or whatever I’m missing the real world, I’m missing what is actually out there, and I am being that distracted, I’m not focusing on what the actual call of my life is. If you’re all in a frenzy, you can’t shoot straight. Jesus said, ‘let not your heart be troubled,’ and I take that seriously. If the news is troubling you in this unproductive way, turn it off! It’s not your business.”

    His spirituality takes materiality and the natural world seriously, in a way that fits well with the sacramental framework of the Church, which sees earthly things as imbued with divine importance. “I never got much out of the playing-harps-on-a-cloud stuff. Heaven to me looks more like the kind of work I love doing out here.” He continues, “We’re not just spirits trapped in bodies. Our bodies aren’t just something disposable, and our souls are the ‘real deal.’ Our bodies and our souls make us what we are. We aren’t just angels. I guess I’d call my world view, I don’t have a good word for it yet, but I guess I’d call it incarnational. And that’s what Catholicism has been about. It’s been about finding God in the world.” I mentioned to the padre something I’d read about how, in the Christian story, God had joined us in all our humanity by becoming a man, and that, therefore, anything good about human beings was filled with the divine: our joys, our work, our friendships. He nodded, “I think that’s right.”

    After the ground beef goes into the cooler, I help him wash up the tubs and the tools. We save a bit of the beef for lunch and grill burgers with barbeque chips and Coors Light, his favorite. He wears a big rancher’s belt buckle that says “Lloyd Lungren, Top Barley Grower 1984.” That’s his grandpa, Lloyd, and his family still grows high country Coors barley for the brewery in Colorado. Where the Coors logo used to sit, Father Bryce has fashioned the Chi Ro, an ancient Greek symbol for the name of Christ.

    After we finish everything up at the trailer, we go to pick up the horses. They’re on a parishioner’s property in Gillette. There’s Chief, and then there is Mollie. They’re not related, but they almost look like siblings, with deep, beautiful bay coats and a little, white star between the eyes. Later, we will drop the horses at another parishioner’s house, a lady who clearly loves to look after animals. One of the neat things about the folks I meet in Gillete is how trusting and tight their relationships seem to be. Father Bryce’s ranching setup works, in significant part, to the willingness of people to share their land, time, and attention.

    Father Bryce and a chestnut horse

    “My whole motto is sonship,” he says as we get back on the road, “and that means that God calls me, calls me by name and according to my nature. He calls me as ‘Bryce.’” When he first heard the call, Father Bryce put away his boots. We have to be ready to sacrifice, and sacrifice radically, for the sake of a higher good. But sometimes we make the mistake of equating holiness with hurt. Yes, growing has its pains, but holiness should also bring us joy, and it should mean becoming ourselves. “How do I define holiness? Holiness is being fully the man or woman God has created you to be. Holiness looks like asking God what he desires and hearing back ‘I desire what you desire.’ That doesn’t mean anything you happen to want is the right thing; you have to be sure that your desires are in line with the truth. If you do that, then holiness can be driven from within. It’s not God sitting up there just commanding things, but it’s the Spirit moving within the desires of our hearts.”

    “We think God’s will for our lives can’t be what we actually want,” Father Bryce says, but just as our desire for something does not necessarily mean it is good, it also doesn’t necessarily mean it is selfish or bad. God wants to work with our desires, our talents, our passions, our interests, to find what is good in them and to elevate them. This, he says, is particular to who we are. That’s why God calls us by our own name. “There already was a Mother Teresa, you have to be your own saint!”

    We head north up the highway toward Hulett, where the cows are currently pasturing. I am here at the perfect time of year, in October, as we head up into the Wyoming side of the Black Hills, home to Devil’s Tower. He comments that the structure is aptly named – it’s sitting there sticking out saying “me, me, look at me!” and that’s what the devil is – all pride. But the scenery is anything but devilish. The dark pines are interspersed with brilliant, warm, golden and scarlet leaves, and the sky is a gentle, cloud-dappled blue.

    As we head down the road, like the farmer he is, Father Bryce is noticing each piece of cultivated land we’ve past, whether their owners have laid up their hay yet, how they’ve treated their soil, what they’re pasturing their cattle on. And like the priest he is, he’s thinking about the way folks treat the natural world and the way they treat people, even their relationship with God. He recalls guys he once worked with in ranching, and how the guys that were unnecessarily rough on animals tended to be sort of rough to people in their lives too. The whole thing is founded on whether we have reverence or not. If we have reverence for creation, we may have a better chance of having reverence for people, and for the Creator.

    We reach the log house of Joe, a member of the flock. The cattle are lying about and grazing on the rich, native grasses behind the house. We get out of the truck and chat with Joe, meet his dogs, and unload Chief and Mollie. We saddle up and meander around the hills as the sun heads towards the horizon.

    After riding out, we meet Joe’s wife on the family porch. She suffers from chronic health issues and has a doctor’s visit coming up. She’s tired and in pain. As she explains her worries and struggles with illness, Father Bryce looks on with compassion, and offers to give her the anointing of the sick. The couple gratefully accepts. So on the log porch, in the fading light in the Black Hills, he administers the sacrament in his jeans and cowboy boots. She bows her head and Joe closes his eyes and holds his cowboy hat in his hands. Father Bryce utters the words of blessing, asking God to give comfort and aid to his servant. Afterward, we go inside for supper and homebrew beer.

    a cowboy leaning on a fence

    We wake up early in the morning to take a few cows out from the herd. I follow Father Bryce and Joe as they strategically get behind the desired cows and chase them uphill toward the trailer. Father Bryce hollers “hey, hey, hey!” as he prompts the skittish animals toward the trailer, and, after a bottleneck or two, successfully loads them up and leaves for Mass. After it is over, he grabs a bite at a local hotel (owned by parishioners) and drives to the next small town to celebrate again.

    “Well, on to the next one,” Father Bryce says as we leave the gas station. That’s one of his favorite sayings. “To me it’s just, like, whatever has happened, good or bad, the only thing we can do is move ahead. So you had a great success. Awesome, on to the next one. So you failed, that’s great, on to the next one. What makes a cowboy is not if he gets bucked off, but whether he gets back on again.” The day before, he had told me, with regard to his vocation as a shepherd of souls, “I know I could get bucked or tossed at any moment, but we trust in God’s mercy more than we trust in our own achievements.”

    After the second Mass, he unloads the cows and throws out bales for them to munch on south of Gillette. We crack a Coors Light and lean on the back of his truck, his black clerics dusted with hay and dirt. “My grandpa had a few things he always told us kids,” he says as he takes a sip. “One of them was ‘always wear your hat.’ In some way, that’s just a good piece of advice. A hat keeps the sun off of you and all that. But I also think about how he said always wear your hat. You gotta be who God called you to be.”

    To this effect, he insists that I must have my own hat. After perusing the rack at the co-op, he places one on my head, a little kid’s hat about five sizes too small for me. “It’s perfect,” he chuckles as he steps back and takes a look. But it really is important that I get a hat, and he generously buys me one. He strikes up a conversation with the clerk, who also has had some time working on a ranch. You’d think they knew each other, but it’s just the warm familiarity of cowboy country.

    As we part ways, he hollers, “Hey! Keep wearing that hat! It fits good on you.”

    Contributed By NathanBeacom Nathan Beacom

    Nathan Beacom is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. His work on agriculture and the environment and other subjects has appeared in Civil Eats, America Magazine, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere.

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